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The English West Midlands

Most people generally associate the West Midlands with large, industrial areas such as those centring upon the cities of Birmingham and Coventry. Indeed, the area was home to the Industrial Revolution, containing within its boundaries the town of Ironbridge in Shropshire. Linguistically, the dialects associated with Birmingham and the Black Country link back to the Middle English West Midlands dialect, which covered a much wider geographical area. 

Of the two varieties, the Black Country dialect is often considered to be particularly distinctive, as it has retained traditional dialect forms which have disappeared from the rest of the Midlands what are the Birmingham and Black Country dialects? .

The West Midlands as a geographical area today is made up of five neighbouring shire counties, those of Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire Warwickshire and Worcestershire.

Two of England’s major cities and their outlying areas, namely Birmingham and Coventry, were once part of the county of Warwickshire. During the 1960s, increasing migration into the two cities that centred upon the car industry led to the expansion of these cities and their surrounding areas. With a dense, increasing population, in 1974 the West Midlands county was created. Although this county ceased to exist for administrative purposes in 1986, local people still refer to the West Midlands as an administrative entity. Most residents still write it on their address, and on a national level, most internet registration forms force one to choose the West Midlands when one has to choose a county of residence. The major bus company in the area is West Midlands Travel, other associations such as  the Scout Association, Girl Guiding UK, the Lions and the Round Table still make use of the county name, and team sports such as amateur football are played in a regional league entitled ‘West Midlands.’

In  1986 the county of the West Midlands was abolished, and split into the seven Metropolitan Boroughs:  Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall, and Wolverhampton. These are still the administrative units in use today.

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West Midlands English Black Country
The Black Country (rough boundaries)

The Black Country: 

The boundaries of the Black Country, unlike those of Birmingham, are a matter of local dispute and debate.  Its boundaries are not determined by any administrative boundaries such as those of Birmingham, nor is it a separate country, since it straddles both Staffordshire and Worcestershire. Even so, its centre is acknowledged by many historians as centring upon the town of Dudley and surrounding areas that were once villages.  The problem is, that while the very heartlands of the area may remain undisputed, its boundaries are the subject of fierce, local dispute. A discussion on the BBC Black Country chat forum on the subject is revealing:

Andi of the Bonk:

''I am from Quarry Bank. I believe The Black Country to be the areas from Dudley, Wednesbury, Tipton to Blackheath, Oldhill, Cradley, Lye and good old Quarry Bank to be the true Black Country. Wolverhampton is a separate place entirely and Stourbridge is just outside - or so I have always been lead to believe. Seems like a lot of places are trying to cash in on what some once looked down there (sic) noses at!!!!!''

DJ Andy Hicks:

''I agree with Andi of the Bonk. All of a sudden, all the people who used to cringe at Black Country, now want to be a part of it. Well its ours, an we bay gunna let it goo [we are not going to let it go]. Where is it? Dudley, Wednesbury, Oldbury, West Brom, Tipton and the like. Stourbridge, NO. Wolves, NO.'' (‘Where is the Black Country’ (bbc.co.uk/blackcountry, 2006).

Debates such as the one above indicate that although a specific accent and dialect is linguistically rooted in a geographic place and has its linguistic roots in a specific place, its boundaries are imaginative as well as physical and political.

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West Midlands English Birmingham and Black Country
The map is based upon Ordnance Survey material with the permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of the Controller of Her Majesty's Stationery Office.

Birmingham: 

The boundaries of  the city of Birmingham are well marked and not generally subject to dispute, enshrined as they are in the political and administrative entity as the City of Birmingham.



As neighbouring areas, it is not surprising that the dialects and accents of Birmingham and the Black Country merge across the boundaries of the two, and it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. The Birmingham variety is also known as Brummie (as are the inhabitants of that city). Nevertheless, there are features which are unique, as well as common, to both dialects. As with other regions of the UK, there are dictionaries of Birmingham and Black Country English, that can be found easily by an internet search. 

Grammar 

A characteristic of the Birmingham dialect is the way in which plural nouns are sometimes marked with an –en, such as housen for houses. This feature is still in use among older speakers.  It dates back to the Middle English period, when such a feature was widely in use across England. In the same way, the particle a- appears in phrases like I ain’t a-going to complain to mark the progressive (the fact that the action is ongoing). This feature can be traced right back to Old English.

Using what where in standard English the word who would be used is in common use today in both Birmingham and the Black Country varieties, as in the man whats uncle got drownded.’

Another way in which the Black Country dialect is distinctive in its grammar, particularly in the verb be. Unlike Standard English, this verb is more regular in Black Country English: I am, you am, he/she/it is, we am you am and they am.

Perhaps even more fascinatingly, Black Country negative verb forms have a distinctive structure not found anywhere else in the English speaking world. Thus I am not becomes I ay, I did not becomes I day, I cannot becomes I cor and I shall not becomes I share.

Vocabulary

Both Birmingham and the Black Country dialects have a vocabulary which contains distinctive elements.

In Birmingham:

  • bab is a common term of endearment; 
  • Brum is the word used for Birmingham; 
  • Brummie is someone who is from Brum. 

In the Black Country:

  • The term for a hill is bonk; 
  • something good can frequently be described as bostin’, for example, a bostin’ day out.   
  • caggy handed is still in common use for a left-handed person; 
  • cut is the word for a canal; 
  • Both regions say tarra a bit for goodbye 

Accent

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West Midlands English Accents Map

Birmingham and the Black Country form a transition zone on the so-called North-South linguistic divide in England.

A characteristic of this divide is that people in the South (blue area) pronounce the vowel /a/ as long in  words like grass, bath, glass whilst those in the North (red area), including Birmingham and the Black Country,  pronounce them as short, to rhyme with /trap/. 

In the Black Country, the sounds for /a/ and /o/ are often reversed, so for man the word is pronounced mon; for /ea/ the pronunciation is a long /a/, so speak is spake; and /u/ is pronounced /o/ in words like mom for mum. In words such as work, the /o/ sound is pronounced as two separate vowels (called dipthongization) to give weark.

Other accent features include over pronouncing –ing so that all three letters are pronounced (called velar nasal plus) and pronouncing the –ou in a word such as /you/ as /yow/.